“Raw. Real. That band was amazing in their early days.”
“Middle years were near perfection, though. They became true musicians.”
“Now they write soulless stuff. Well-produced. But soulless.”
“Happens with all the greats.”
“Yeah…then they break up.”
This type of exchange between fans occurs all the time. Insert different bands, but the narrative is pretty much the same.
While the process of writing is different than musicians jamming (even for those writers who have close collaborations with a partner or editor, nothing is quite like bandmate chemistry), whenever there’s a reoccurring phenomenon amongst artists of any medium, it begs other creatives to take a closer look. Could there be something universal happening here that a writer can learn from?
Typically bands form when the players are young and the audiences younger. There seems to be an inherent raw energy to the work that is particularly attractive. Living on the edge creates its own drive for a band, a kind of hunger seen in the starving writer as well. And for the listeners (or readers) going through similar experiences, an emotional connection and sentimentality is formed around the work. With time, as the band get into its groove through both experimenting and experience, a refinement takes place and their music forms a new kind of harmony. Yet the most interesting phase, and the most cautionary chapter, is what often happens right at the last.
On Cracked.com, Winston Rowntree offers his own take with “6 Reasons Good Bands Start to Suck: An Illustrated Guide.” Rowntree suggests that, “A good artist is constantly evolving … or so many of them seem to believe. Fear of failing to evolve leads successful artists to change from one thing into another, alienating the portion of the audience that already liked them.”
This theory rings true to me, and it is often seen in writers, too. Granted, the more people working together towards any endeavor, the more likely there are to be the kinds of creative differences seen in bands. Yet, I think this fear of failure is often at the very heart of it, just further multiplied by the number of band members.
This same kind of fear sometimes stops younger, amateur writers (even with all their newbie gusto) from stepping into the Submitting arena. Yet it also worms its way into the heads of seasoned pros, too, and occasionally with tragic consequences. Fear of simply being a “one-hit wonder” certainly isn’t limited to musicians.
Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings highlights a project by Stockholm’s Berghs School of Communication in which they gathered insights from artists of all kinds to address the fears of creative failure and philosophies on how to cope. Writer Paul Coelho (The Alchemist) contributed thoughts I found particularly powerful, and his words echo some of that drive and hunger that I believe fans respond to within the early—and often beautifully imperfect—work of many bands. Coelho says, “When you put love and enthusiasm into your work, even if people don’t see it, they realize that it is there, that you did this with all your body and soul.”
So is there something we writers can learn from all this, or are many of us also fated to fall into a pre-ordained pattern with our work?
Maybe the overall lesson here is this:
The energy we put into our work when we have passion (critics be damned!) creates a freedom that allows some of our greatest creativity to pour forth. On the other hand, there is something so important about being honest with our work and about being humbled by other artists. Practice and critique creates a mindset necessary to elevate the flow of our prose (not unlike the harmony of those “middle albums” that fans praise). Still, over polishing and hunting down the muse to give us perfection every time is dangerous.
Rowntree’s top reason on his listicle for why great bands take a nosedive is that, “The good stuff is rare and special, which is why we like it to begin with.”
Wow. How many times have we as writers wanted to give up on a project because it isn’t as good as one we’ve done before? Yet that process of failing is what we need to go through to get us to that next rare but sublime story—or song.
So perhaps it is not our age or how long we’ve been writing, or even the milestones of a career that’s are the litmus test for successful longevity, but rather the way we approach each new project, and each phase of every project. It is all about striking that balance between embracing fearless creativity during earlier jams on our drafts, countered with utilizing professional tools and techniques at just the right moments in the process. Indeed, if we tune in to what music fans are sensing, we’ll sustain our craft.
Still, crap helps us, too. Another creative in the Brain Pickings’ post, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, notes that, “It is very important to embrace failure and to do a lot of stuff — as much stuff as possible — with as little fear as possible. It’s much, much better to wind up with a lot of crap having tried it than to overthink in the beginning and not do it.”
Band members can form other bands. But writers (regardless of pseudonyms), are ultimately destined to rock it out on their own. Falling out of tune happens, even for the greats—but perhaps the way we as artists pick ourselves up is truly the defining note.
Don’t break up.1